How to Play Nice With Technology Gatekeepers

(Originally published in ClickZ, July 2002) by Eric Picard

Back when Bluestreak was a rich media company, I could have written a doctoral thesis on working with tech gatekeepers. This was back in the heady days when publishers had a certain sense of superiority fueled by the artificial inflation of their valuations. We went to extreme lengths to develop rich media technology that didn’t impact user experience — to the point we nearly killed ourselves getting our initial software download down to 5.7k.

For the Web publisher, a technology gatekeeper manages the adoption of third-party ad technologies used by advertisers on the publisher’s site. These include ad servers, rich media, and analysis technology. The goal is to make sure third-party technologies won’t crash the Web site, make user experience suffer, or cause significant data discrepancies between the publisher and the third party.

It wasn’t only technology providers like Bluestreak that faced the gatekeeper issue. Media buyers and creative teams faced it as well. Nearly all the players in the industry were under the close scrutiny and influence of the technology gatekeepers.

They were the sheriffs of the Wild Web portals back in the gold rush. They carried the fastest six-shooters and had a posse of deputies to research, track, and nail the most miniscule bug in a technology. A license to run rich media on Yahoo or AOL was like having Wyatt Earp let you carry your guns into town because he deemed you a “good guy.”

Eventually, a time came when the sheriff was running the town. It was difficult to do any kind of business without making him happy first. When the gold rush dried up, the sheriff lost his posse. The town fathers turned the jail into a welcome center. Suddenly, everyone was allowed to carry his guns in town, even those who fired them into the air after 7 p.m.

Things have started to equalize. Once again, technology gatekeepers have budgets and teams. They are regaining the ability to say no to technologies they don’t approve of. That means it’s time to start learning about this breed of hombres so you can work with them easily (and without flinching when you’re asked to present your guns for inspection).

The technology gatekeeper as sheriff metaphor wasn’t chosen at random. There are a lot of parallels between the jobs and the psychological makeup of these roles.

Keeper of the Peace and Protector of Babies

The technology gatekeeper does her job with a clear conscience. She’s making the experience of visiting her Web site a safe one. She keeps unsavory technology that misbehaves from causing problems in the community. This could be a rogue Java applet, or a Flash file that causes older machines to freeze because they overwhelm the CPU.

Remember: Gatekeepers feel they act in the best interest of the people they represent. Approaching them in any way that puts them in conflict with that role is a bad idea.

Don’t try to sway them by offering a bribe, even an innocent offer of industry schwag or tickets to a trade show. This is a surefire way to get their hackles up. Any tech gatekeeper worth his salt would be insulted or worse by that kind of behavior.

Never try to strong-arm or go around them (to the mayor
— or VP of sales) to get your way. If the VP includes the gatekeeper in the meeting you’ve set up (which she’s likely to do), things will just get uncomfortable. A better approach is to start off on the right foot by having a meeting with all parties ahead of time. Then, move on to the gatekeeper as part of the process. This gets all the issues on the table, sets the everyone’s expectations (including the gatekeeper’s), and makes everyone happy.

The only way to win trust from technology gatekeepers is to be trustworthy. Demonstrate you will not screw them. Keep them from getting in trouble for letting you walk their streets. Build the relationship over time and make sure you don’t let them down.

In ad technology, it’s likely you’ll eventually have a problem. These are the moments when you can actually improve your relationship with the gatekeeper. By being open and honest and doing everything in your power to fix the problem and keep him in the loop, you’ll win his trust and respect.

They Don’t Make ‘Em Like They Used To

The biggest problem we’ll face now that power is returning to gatekeepers is the majority of them are inexperienced. Disney, Yahoo, AOL, and some other major players have kept those important and skilled people in their roles, but they’re the exceptions. Most gatekeepers moved back to the traditional world where jobs with real salaries still exist.

Many of today’s new gatekeepers aren’t experienced in being empowered to turn away revenue under almost any circumstances. They gained their experience in a world where they were left to clean up the mess made by a third party rather than keeping the mess from happening in the first place.

Now that gatekeepers have some say again as the pendulum approaches center, they need advice on how to use of this power. Here’s mine:

Let’s not return to the “good old days” of letting technical issues drive the publisher’s business decisions. I’m a technologist. I completely understand why testing is needed and what can happen when things explode. But many lucrative deals were lost by this industry because of technology gatekeepers’ excessive conservatism.

There was fear user backlash from intrusive technology or techniques would drive people away from the publisher’s free content. This wasn’t the case. Let’s learn from that. Be flexible. At the very least, run live tests with companies without taking weeks and weeks to do so.

In the end, we should all strive for the same thing: success. Ours in particular, the industry’s in general. Everyone needs to work together. The overriding goal of the gatekeeper should be to facilitate the process, not throw a monkey wrench into the works.


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